Carnival of Death

There are two kinds of wars in the desert: war of religion and political war. In political war, we make compromises, but in wars of religion, we exterminate everybody.
Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah al-Saud [1]

It’s been a few weeks since David Cameron promised to keep unnamed Syrian generals safe from indictment should Bashar al-Assad “fall” from power and in that time the idea has vanished from all diplomatic and media discourse. The war grinds on regardless and the Prime Minister continues unabashed, as if the words never even passed through his thin lips. Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you think about it at all – the action has been elsewhere: Brussels, for example, or Doha, Ankara, or along the Jordanian border. Meanwhile, the pro-intervention arguments circulating in Washington, Paris and London – arm the Free Syrian Army to topple Assad, strengthen the moderates in the Syrian National Coalition, or at least level both sides and bring them to the negotiating table – look increasingly irrelevant. The battles are overlapping and fracturing and collectively elude any clear International Relations framework or Conflict Resolution prescription. As John Bew wrote in his July 10th New Statesman essay [2]:

The notion that we are faced therefore with a choice between idealism and realism, or intervention and non-intervention, is the first of many false starting points. That debate is a luxury of simpler times. More than two years after the Syrian rebellion began, the only question that still matters for makers of western foreign policy is what species of interference we choose to adopt.

There is no simple choice left to make, and all arguments about ideology and strategy have run their course: the three leading Western military powers are left with tactics and damage-limitation inadequate to the task at hand or the situation on the ground. The regime has consolidated its urban strongholds, regrouped and gone on the offensive with the aid of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Quds Force. It has retained and incorporated roving paramilitaries from pre-war Shabiha to the Iranian-backed al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi and multiethnic Lijan militias. Bew, quoting Syrian exile Malik al-Abdeh, describes Bashar as the “strongest warlord in the country” – strange fate for a former ophthalmology student with a retiring manner and well-groomed investment banker wife from West London. We may never know how it got to this: the exact chain of decisions made by Bashar and Maher al-Assad, Hafez Makhlouf, Assef Shawkat (before being blown up by al-Qaeda) or General Kheirbek. But their war has metastasised and burst borders. It has incorporated a theological war – or series of wars – raging in the region and has expanded and intensified them. What we are left with looks like chaos but can be summarised or categorised as follows:

1) “The Axis of Resistance”

The presence of Hezbollah this deep in the fighting and so visible on the ground indicates higher stakes at play than simply the jurisdiction and levers of state. Having said this, it is not surprising that the self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance” will protect its own on ideological as well as strategic grounds and some have been pointing out IRGC and Hezbollah mischief in Syria for well over a year. Historically, the battles waged by Hezbollah in Lebanon always had a sectarian edge and agenda, from the destruction of Amal and the Shi’ite Left in the 1980s to the campaign against the Sunni Gulf monarchs that culminated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. The announcement of Hezbollah’s entrance into the war in May was the precursor to the Assad regime’s crucial strategic victory in Quasir that momentarily jolted Saudi Arabia and Qatar out of their own rivalry (see 3, ‘Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar’). The most important subsequent Quds Force contribution may well be training of the undisciplined government militias that have run rampant in rebel towns [3] and the co-ordination of pro-Iranian Shi’ite brigades being transported in and out of Iraq (see 5, ‘Iraqi Exports’). Syria is an overt and acknowledged Iranian outpost to add to more exotic locales and interests in Latin America, Africa and Central Asia where smuggling and narcotic routes operate under IRGC and Hezbollah auspices. Nevertheless, the war has also exposed the limits of the Revolutionary Republic’s ultimate territorial reach which cannot realistically extend beyond the Levant and Iraq – except under the approaching “nuclear umbrella”.

2) Al-Qaeda in Syria

The proliferation of Salafist groups in Syria is a challenge for journalists and analysts who struggle to disentangle Islamist tendencies, alliances and schisms. Even al-Qaeda affiliates can be problematic. By the end of 2012, press dispatches and wires nominated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as the primary al-Qaeda representative in Syria. In fact, the group was a franchise of a franchise: a Syrian offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), home to the post-al-Zarqawi al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In recent months al-Nusra has been sidelined by the unwelcome arrival of Baghdadi in northern Syria and his unilateral declaration of a merger between the ISI and JN into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This had the almost instantaneous effect of dissolving al-Nusra, many of its disciplined brigades disintegrating as their leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani resisted Baghdadi’s micro-coup. There followed some inadvertent comic relief when Ayman al-Zawahiri – himself! – tried and failed to reconcile his fractious generals via a conspicuosly ignored communiqué.

Following the fall-out, a recent Reuters article distinguished between a trans-national jihadi ISIS and a Syrian nationalist JN, but this was contested by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi who was able to show that this division is not exact and that the ISIS brigades pose a real threat as they expand into the cities, towns and villages of northern Syria [4]. What remains may be a division of tactics: despite the fearsome reputation of JN, it largely eschewed scorched earth sectarian and sharia policies pursued by AQI in the Sunni tribal areas of Iraq: the last thing they wanted was a repeat of the Iraqi Sunni Awakening on Syrian soil. Baghdadi, on the other hand, is a more brutal character than this and the Syrian tribes are apprehensive about his presence, to say the least.

Outside of this disputatious al-Qaeda merger the remaining Salafist groups have formed two broad coalitions in the People’s Front of Judea tradition: the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) and the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the latter being led by Ahrar al-Sham, the strongest jihadi group in Syria. Both coalitions contain regional brigades from major rebel cities including Homs and Aleppo as well as trans-national militias employing fighters from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Despite an occasional overlap and alliance with the FSA/SMC these groups have been responsible for some of the more high-profile atrocities of the war – for example, the famous heart-eating “cannibal” Abu Sakkur belonged to Farouq Brigades (SILF). They have access to generous funding streams and weapons from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, in contrast to ISIS reliance on Palestinian and Gulf backers and self-generated income from smuggling and extortion.

Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS have not joined the Syrian National Coalition but the influence of Salafist groups in the opposition movement as a whole has grown in line with their impact on military gains. In short, they are the most organised, committed and ruthless fighters, often coming to the aid of fractious and uncoordinated FSA/SMC units. Public criticism of Salafists from opposition parties is not welcome as Randa Kassis quickly discovered after she highlighted the jihadi turn [5] and was frozen out of the Coalition. The tactical and political folly of this course is clear and some FSA/SMC leaders are already talking about the next war after Assad: a fight to the death between the FSA and the Islamists.

3) Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar

The Saudis are locked in an intra-Sunni struggle with Qatar for control of the Syrian opposition. The Saudis have won the most recent round with the selection of their candidates Ahmad al-Jarba and Michel Kilo to lead the Syrian National Coalition at the expense of Qatari proxy Ghassan Hitto. The Saudi campaign – overseen by intelligence director Bandar bin Sultan and with the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman in tow – has effectively sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood from the Syrian opposition [6]. While the Saudis hate and fear the Brotherhood, Qatar has been their biggest recent backer with large-scale funding for Morsi in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the Saudi-Qatar tug-of-war has found arenas in Syria and Egypt, and with massive loans slated for the new military-backed regime in Cairo, Bandar is beating the Emirs old and new. (As a related issue, the sectarian war is simmering away in Egypt: for example, the Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata was recently killed by a Sunni mob in Giza, while Copts now face regular attack.)

For the moment, the Saudis and Qataris appear reconciled in an attempt to detach and sideline JN/ISIS and other Salafist groups (some they previously funded) from the opposition military campaign, fearful of handing further victories to their future gravediggers. The GCC is now funding and arming the SMC, the FSA and the Sunni tribes of northern Syria, in line with the declared policies of the West and Turkey. The Saudis have paid for French and Libyan missiles as well as Yugoslav weapons supplied by Croatia and shuttled in Jordanian planes to and from Jordanian territory. Given the Saudi-Qatari public policy, it ought to be pointed out that these weapons have already been spotted in the hands of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham [7].

It should also be noted, I suppose, that marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood deviates from recent U.S. policy in the region as shaped by CIA director John Brennan. Since the President’s overt outreach to the Brotherhood in the 2009 Cairo speech, his administrations and diplomats have supported the organisation’s elevation to power in Egypt and Tunisia. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is considered a shameless Brotherhood lackey by many in Egypt, even within the Islamist-inflected military elites [8].

4) Lebanese Overspill

The export of Sunni extremists from Tripoli to Syria and the placement of Hezbollah units on border towns has underscored and aggravated the existing sectarian and factional split in Lebanese politics between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs. Tripoli is the most fractious and dangerous city of all and has been inflamed by the Syrian fighting: anti-Assad Salafist groups, armed and funded by Gulf benefactors, have fought pitched battles against Alawite, Hezbollah and Tawheed militias and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The situation across the country is laced with other distractions including FSA/SMC attacks on Hezbollah border posts, Syrian air strikes and shelling, kidnappings and car bombs, and Lebanese Army incursions into Palestinian refugee camps.

Lebanese and Syrian politics are tied to each other. The timeline of discord runs side by side: Lebanon has been destabilised by the war next door from the moment protests started in Daraa. Only the scale of the carnage and the direction of intervention separate them. Had this trail of subversion and sporadic conflict occurred in isolation we would be discussing the start of a Lebanese civil war. Headlines and reports out of the country are relentlessly negative and foreboding, but one exception is worth mentioning. Michael Totten recently interviewed a group of Lebanese politicians who see a way out of sectarian politics precisely through the Syrian war. For example, Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician from Tripoli [9]:

The post-Assad transition is going to be tough because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years […] There will be the real possibility of development. We could have train service all the way down to Cairo.

There is a lot going on here – a concession to sectarian realities as well as implied accommodation with Israel – but what is most striking is the sense of possibility and optimism that a defeat for Iranian proxies would bring to Lebanon. This is a clear strategic aim for the Western powers that would deliver a net benefit for moderates and allies in the region. Lebanon is not a side issue or even a separate war.

5) Iraqi Exports

The Sunni and Shia of Iraq have their own take on events in Syria and it isn’t good for Syria or Iraq or the West. One of the edgier developments is the renewed self-confidence among Sunnis marginalised by the Shia-dominated pro-Iranian Maliki administration which is combining dangerously with unease about recent Iranian and Shi’ite gains in Syria. The ultimate spur for a second Sunni Awakening could be the mass formation of Shi’ite militias and brigades that are being dispatched to Syria under the supervision of Quds Force and Hezbollah. The prominence of Iraqi Shi’ite groups in Syria – such as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Liwa’a Zulfiqar in southern Damascus and Liwa’a Ammar Ibn Yasir in Aleppo [10] – is a hidden narrative with lethal implications for Baghdad. The Iraqi  Shi’ite militants come from various backgrounds, including al-Sadr remnants and Badr Organisation members. Having cut their teeth harassing Allied troops and fighting in the Iraqi Civil War of 2006-8, these Iranian-backed militants have been retrained and deployed as security henchmen for the Assad regime, guarding Damascus airport, securing residential complexes and quelling suburban rebellions. The groups are linked by ideology and iconography: websites and flags bear Hezbollah insignia, portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and pictures of the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus.

Despite nugatory attempts at the behest of the U.S. to stop planes flying over (or from) Iraqi territory loaded with men and munitions destined for Syria, the Maliki administration has aligned itself with the pro-Assad positions of Iran and Russia. The Iraqis have allowed the roads to remain open for weapons transits and the kept borders porous for Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman entering Syria. Meanwhile, pro-FSA flags and chants have been reported in Anbar province while Sunni tribesmen in Iraq facilitate their smuggling routes along the border [11]. Adding to sectarian tensions a resurgent AQI/ISI owe their new post-occupation lease of life to the Syrian war, attacking Shi’ite convoys with gusto and adding their own gratuitous signature to events in the form of beheadings, booby-trapped corpses and the mass machine-gunning of civilians.

6) The Jordanian Bind

King Abdullah II was once a close friend of Bashar al-Assad but is now among his most implacable enemies. Both came to power at the turn of the century, taking control of strategically important and troubled Arab countries after spending their formative years in expensive schools and Western capitals. Abdullah introduced economic reforms and selective modernisation to Jordan while promising further democracy without actually delivering it; as a consequence, the dynastic grip on power is precarious but stiffened by international alliances, a loyal army and a beautiful queen. The Assad legacy was more complicated and Bashar’s room for maneuver very slight; his plans to reform the Syrian economy were gradual and careful as he navigated Ba’ath loyalists of the Hafez era and the rural Sunni interests protected by state planning. The spark that lit a civil and regional war started here: agricultural modernisation enforced by the regime – policies designed to open up the Syrian economy to world markets – caused water shortages and subsequent protests in Daraa. There is a deep irony here and I wonder if Abdullah sees it.

Assad was locked in the logic of state security and an anti-Semitic, terror-sponsoring foreign policy because of the dynamics of his father’s power network and the regional thirst for Arab resistance to Israel and the West. This was a very different course to Abdullah, who retained standing with the corrupt and duplicitous Gulf monarchs, criticised Israeli policy only when necessary (without forgetting the trouble the Palestinians once caused his father), and nurtured close diplomatic and military ties to America and the United Kingdom. Jordan’s position in the Syrian civil war is a direct result of this divergence. From the beginning, the Kingdom has kept it borders open and allowed Syrian refugees to remain on Jordanian soil with access to all social services. The influx has become a flood with the growth of two sprawling and anarchic refugee camps that no longer contain the total number of refugees, many of whom have melted into Annan and other urban populations. The strain on jobs and public resources has been immense and tensions continue to rise between Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees [12].

There is a further fear – shared by the government, the armed forces and the monarchy – that pro-Assad Hezbollah saboteurs and terrorist cells have entered the country ready to take revenge should any aggressive move be made from Jordanian territory. This is delicate and worrying because American, British and French Special Forces have trained rebels from Daraa in Jordan [13] and the U.S. has temporarily stationed 900 service personnel in the Kingdom to man Patriot missiles, fly F-16s and prepare for chemical warfare.

7) Palestinian Ironies

The basic split apparently goes: Fatah in the West Bank are pro-Assad while Hamas in Gaza are pro-rebel. This may be true but it gets more complicated the closer in you get. The position of Hamas is particularly intriguing and it is difficult to know how successful or sensible they have been. The official line fed and led by Khaled Mashal (at least, after relocating from Damascus to Doha) has been strong condemnation of Assad with the result that Iranian funds have dropped significantly. The Hamas leadership bet on an increase in support from Qatar and the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt but with the fall of Morsi and the removal of Sheikh Hamad – the Emir who founded Al Jazeera and spent a third of Qatar’s capital reserves funding the Brotherhood – that calculation looks less secure. This has caused anger and alarm among armed Palestinian factions who have enjoyed and even depended upon the security of Persian cash and weaponry for many years. The leadership of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the paramilitary wing of Hamas, has questioned the wisdom of abandoning the ‘Axis of Resistance’ for Sunni posturing and a flakey alliance with Qatar. Meanwhile, for some in Gaza the pro-rebel position of Hamas has been too weak: unlike other Sunni militants from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Central Asia, very few Hamas martyrs have washed up in Syria and the rulers of Gaza are being out-flanked by more radical Palestinian Salafist groups preaching anti-Shia invective to an increasingly sectarian population [14]. The alliance with Hezbollah and Assad’s lead in the Palestinian cause are now distant memories – nostalgic for some, a source of shame for others.

The intra-Palestinian ironies and agonies over the Syrian conflict are epitomised by the fate of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. This sprawling settlement was once a small Palestinian city in itself with a thriving arts scene and a record of vocal political activism; unlike its Lebanese counterparts, it closely integrated with the Syrian state and society. At the beginning of the war, camp residents stayed neutral until tensions between pro-rebel activists and the state-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command finally dragged them into the conflict. This ended with the invasion of the FSA, who entered the camp in order to destroy the PFLP-GC, while Syrian MiGs bombed them from above. By this time most of the population had fled Yarmouk and the camp infrastructure was in ruins.

Navigating such factionalism is a complicated matter. Success is hard, at this stage, to gauge. On the one hand, Hamas appear vulnerable and isolated after recent Muslim Brotherhood setbacks; on the other, they still retain financial support from Qatar and some GCC-based benefactors, and Iranian aid has not actually been terminated. In any future fight with Israel they can still count on Iranian firepower – as they did during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

8) Kurdish Fringes

Overlapping or interfacing with this already crowded and convoluted situation is the Kurdish Question. Until 2011, the Qamishli riots of 2004 had been the only significant internal test for Bashar, and his enormous and multifaceted Ba’ath security apparatus had broken the Kurds with some force. They kept quiet during the first year of conflict, wary of the Iranian-backed government and the Turkish-backed rebels.  They were finally sucked into the maelstrom last year when regime troops and FSA rebels both strayed onto Kurdish territory and quickly found themselves in combat with the militias.

The Kurds do not belong to either side. Even though some of the smaller parties have joined the National Coalition, the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) refuses to participate. This is partly because it is an offshoot of the PKK and a member of the Kurdistan People’s Congress (Kongra-Gel) and is therefore resistant to all Turkish-backed endeavors. (When the New York Times interviewed a PYD militiaman in July he was sat beside a large poster of Abdullah Ocalan [15].) The PYD is also at odds with the Kurdish National Council, a rival bloc backed by Massoud Barzani’s KDP which hints at a future conflict along Iraqi KDP vs. PUK lines. The Kurds are constantly fractious but for now agree on an overall strategy following the successful Iraq model: autonomy, one step at a time. (Iraqi Kurdistan is looking stronger than ever: as the central government and Sunni/Shia provinces slip back into chaos, the Kurdish Regional Government is signing oil extraction deals with the Turks and rival oil multinationals [16].)

For now the PYD and its armed wing of People’s Protection Units (YPG) is finishing a fight with al-Qaeda and the Salafists that began last year. The jihadis are attempting to destroy Kurdish nationalism in North Eastern Syria in order to make way for their sharia state: a recent SILF statement threatened to cleanse the provinces of “PKK and Shahiba”. On the other side, PYD-YPG leaders are in the process of clearing Kurdish areas of all foreign groups and influences. In Kurdish provinces, Kurdish is now spoken openly; Kurdish history and culture are back in school curricula; and Arabic road signs are being rewritten in Kurdish. In the chaos of war, with the state falling back and armed Islamist groups facing defeat by battle-hardened unisex PYD-YPG militia, a Kurdish enclave is being carved out that may yet form territory in independent Kurdistan.


Ten years ago I was sitting in a restaurant in South Kensington talking to a friend who was born in Yemen but had been raised in Richmond.  During our conversation, I asked her about the divide between Sunni and Shia and whether it meant anything to her. She looked at me like I was mad and said, definitively: “I never think about it.” She has since moved on – working as a lawyer in Abu Dhabi, last I heard – but so has the Arab world. It would be a very different conversation now, I suspect.

Two events – or, more accurately, moments – spring to mind. The first provided by Kanan Makiya during a despairing 2007 interview with Dexter Filkins in which he described the Shi‘ite leadership in the run-up to the Iraqi civil war [17]:

There was this attitude: “This is a war, this is it — the showdown — why don’t we just gird ourselves for it, why not recognise it as a war and fight it to win? Because we can win.

To Makiya’s dismay, the man he believed had “broken the mould of Arab politicians” – namely, Ahmed Chalabi – joined the hard-liners of SCIRI and Moqtada al-Sadr and pushed Iraq into the sectarian implosion now ripping through the region. (Chalabi could be found rallying the anti-Khalifa Shia parties in Bahrain last year.) This double descent – of a man and a country – is indicative, and tragic.

The second moment is the source of the first: al-Zarqawi’s 2004 letter to al-Zawahiri in which he explained his plan to destroy democracy in Iraq by stoking a religious war. “If we succeed in dragging [the Shi’ites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will be possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger,” he wrote, diabolically [18]. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, destabilising the entire region and not just Iraq. He had to bomb the Golden Mosque in Samarra to get his sectarian war in full flow but from that point on there was no turning back. The current Sunni war against all in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and maybe soon Saudi Arabia is a legacy of al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street criminal turned psychopathic terrorist whose life ended beneath two 500-pound, laser-guided U.S. bombs. This carnival of death is his lethal bequest.

1) Second King of the Second Saudi state and the grandfather of Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, quoted in Lewis Pelley, Report on a Journey to Riyadh (Oleander Falcon reprint, 1978)
2) John Bew, ‘Las Vegas Rules Don’t Apply in Syria’New Statesman, July 10th 2013
3) Hala Jaber, ‘Hezbollah Trains Assad Attack Force’, Sunday Times, June 6th 2013
4)  Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘Where Does Jabhat al-Nusra End, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Begin?’, Syria Comment, July 13th 2013
5) Volkhard Windfuhr, ‘Syrian Opposition Group Leader: “The Islamists are Seizing Power for Themselves”’, Der Spiegel, July 16th 2012
6) David B. Ottaway, ‘The Saudi-Qatari Clash Over Syria’, The National Interest, July 2nd 2013
7) Brown Moses Blog‘Evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra with Croatian Arms’, March 23rd 2013
8) Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, ‘Ambassador Anne Patterson, the Controversial Face of America’s Egypt Policy’, The Daily Beast, July 10th 2013
9) Michael J. Totten, ‘Dreaming of a Lebanon at Peace with its Neighbors’The Tower, July 2013
10) See Phillip Smyth’s ongoing series ‘Hizbollah Cavalcade’ at
11) Michael Knights, ‘Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts Show Signs of Merging’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 7th 2013
12) Taylor Luck, ‘In Jordan, Tensions Rise Between Syrian Refugees and Host Community’, Washington Post, April 21st 2013
13) Julian Borger and Nick Hopkins, ‘West Training Syrian Rebels in Jordan’The Guardian, March 8th 2013
14) Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘HAMAS and Syria’,, June 21st 2013
15) Ben Hubbard, ‘Kurdish Struggle Blurs Syria’s Battlelines’, New York Times, August 1st 2013
16) Joost R. Hiltermann, ‘Revenge of the Kurds’Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012
17) Dexter Filkins, ‘Regrets Only?’, New York Times, October 7th 2007
18) Quoted in Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between Al-Qaeda and America (Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 164

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s